The Debate

Japan’s Decision on Collective Self-Defense in Context

Recent Features

The Debate

Japan’s Decision on Collective Self-Defense in Context

In the East Asian regional context, Japan’s changing security posture is not the force for peace Tokyo claims it is.

Japan’s Decision on Collective Self-Defense in Context
Credit: Official U.S. Navy Page via

On July 1, Japan passed a Cabinet decision that fundamentally changes the interpretation of war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution to allow the exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

Claimed to be part of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s doctrine of “pro-active pacifism,” the move stems from a correlation between Japan’s rising nationalism on the one hand, and joint U.S.-Japan efforts to strengthen their security cooperation on the other, as Washington and Tokyo are renegotiating their defense guidelines for the first time since 1997. The revised guidelines are due by year-end, with an interim report slated to be released next week.

Proponents say the Cabinet decision provides only for a “limited” expansion of Japan’s military capability overseas and allows for a strengthened U.S.-Japan cooperation that will make the Asia Pacific region more secure. Abe even claims that “there are no changes in today’s Cabinet Decision from the basic way of thinking on the constitutional interpretation to date.” But is this really so?


The Cabinet decision lifts Japan’s restrictions on the use of force overseas. It now allows the country to militarily help a “foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan,” on the condition that the attack “threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn (Japanese) people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The use of force should also be limited to “the minimum extent necessary”

Vaguely worded, the language of the decision leaves much room for interpretation to determine if and when these criteria are met. For example, Abe claims that taking part in minesweeping operations in the Hormuz Strait would now be allowed, given the fact that more than 80 percent of Japan’s oil transits through the Strait and an oil shortage would fundamentally threaten the nation. Coalition partner Komeito, however, opposes this scenario and insists that the new conditions only authorize Japan to use force if an emergency occurs in and around Japan. Hence, although the decision is the outcome of a political compromise, there is still no consensus on how to apply the criteria.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel welcomed the decision as “bold and historic,” for it allows Japan to “engage in a wider range of operations.” In Japan, many fear it may drag the country into foreign wars in the name of collective defense – a concern deemed “overblown” by those trying to appease. Nonetheless, the question remains as to whether Tokyo could realistically decline a request by Washington. The reverse question may also be posed, as the U.S. could end up drawn into military confrontation in East Asia.

The U.S. has long invited Japan to become a “full partner” in the alliance, by lifting constraints set by Article 9. Since the 1996 Clinton-Hashimoto Declaration that expanded the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to the whole Asia-Pacific region, the two governments have gradually and consistently broadened the scope of their security cooperation, geographically as well as in terms of roles, missions and contingency plans. Yet, the self-imposed ban on collective self-defense was seen as maintaining Japan’s military in an exclusively “defensive” role and limiting overseas missions to “non-combatant” functions. The Cabinet decision now crosses the Rubicon and paves the way to a greater military posture by Japan.

Taking Orders From Washington?

Tokyo’s arguments in support of lifting the ban on collective self-defense have been strikingly similar to the calls of “Japan handlers” in Washington. For instance, the 2012 CSIS report by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council Joseph Nye qualified Article 9’s restrictions as “anachronistic constraints” that should “be eased.” It also stated that the “prohibition of the collective self-defense [was] an impediment to the alliance” and specifically called for Japan’s “increased participation in multinational efforts to combat piracy, protect Persian Gulf shipping, confront threats to regional peace, such as those currently posed by Iran’s nuclear program, and secure sea-lanes.” These were the very cases put forward by Abe to persuade Diet members and the public that reinterpreting the Constitution was necessary.

Armitage and Nye questioned whether “Japan desire[s] to continue to be a tier-one nation, or is she content to drift into tier-two status?” Abe responded, shortly after coming back to power in 2012: “Secretary Armitage, here is my answer to you. Japan is not, and will never be, a Tier-two country. That is the core message I am here to make.” Former top Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Magosaki Ukeru deplores that “rather than having any direction of their own, the (Japanese) ministry staff are merely picking up on the intentions of the U.S. and faithfully executing what they are told to do.”

Playing with Fire

In parallel to the long-declared aim to bolster the alliance, one should not overlook Abe’s own motivation to “break away from the postwar regime.” Indeed, there is no doubt that the move is also driven by Japan’s rising nationalism mixed with historical revisionism. The composition of today’s Cabinet reflects this parallel agenda, with 15 of its 19 members belonging to the Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi), the largest right-wing organization in Japan, and some top officials even posing for photographs with a known neo-Nazi leader.

Japan’s reluctance to atone for its wartime actions has created a regional tinderbox, as epitomized by strong reactions from Beijing and Seoul to the long series of inflammatory comments and provocative actions by top Japanese officials, including visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and offensive remarks over “comfort women.”

Aware of their negative repercussions for East Asia, Washington has repeatedly enjoined Tokyo to keep away from historical revisionism and refrain from steps that would add fire to the already tense regional relations. Obama’s address in Tokyo in April 2014, for instance, signaled this call for caution, when he emphasized the importance of “not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions.”

U.S. pressure has nonetheless failed to rein in Japan’s increasingly vehement nationalist discourse, which revives sore memories of the past. Despite the Cabinet’s cautious approach to date, vigorous voices in the ruling LDP are calling for a revision of the 1993 Kono Statement, which apologized for the Japanese military’s sexual enslavement of women during World War II. Grassroots, right-wing patriotism has also grown to the extent that the UN Human Rights Committee urged Japan to take action against growing anti-Korea and anti-China propaganda. In this context, can we really assume the U.S. can restrain Abe’s right-wing agenda and confidently concentrate on his promise that Japan will play a constructive role in regional security?

Diffusing Regional Tensions 

Despite Abe’s claim that “the reinforced Japan-U.S. alliance has contributed significantly to the peace of Japan and this region over many years, by serving as a deterrent,” the reality is in fact quite the opposite. Chinese state-run news service Xinhua has accused Japan of “dallying with the specter of war” – a view reflected by a recent survey that found that about 53 percent of Chinese and 29 percent of Japanese respondents expected a war to break out by the year 2020.

It is a matter of urgency to find ways to diffuse tensions and avoid the development of an uncontrollable situation in East Asia, where territorial disputes are threatening to become explosive. Although a fundamental change of attitude by any party seems unlikely in the short term, efforts can and must be made at many levels.

In Japan, several political windows for change are emerging, including the holding of unified local elections next spring. The broad public protest witnessed against constitutional reinterpretation may translate into changes in the political landscape and have an impact on the legislative process starting early next year.

Indeed, the Cabinet decision, symbolic as it is, doesn’t yet have the force of law and has to be incorporated within more than a dozen laws to take effect. Its inclusion in the new U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines will also be decisive in clarifying its substantive elements. Already, press reports have revealed disagreements over the wording of the interim report, with Washington concerned that careless language may unnerve China and South Korea.

Improving regional relations will require building confidence – one step at the time. Civil society can play a positive role by fostering dialogue in the region. In this process, it is important to recognize the crucial role Article 9 has played as a regional and international peace mechanism that promotes disarmament and non-military solutions to disputes. Instead of eviscerating it of its principles, Article 9 should be used as an important political tool towards cooperation on disasters, diseases, environmental and humanitarian issues. Civil society has recognized its value and should convince its leaders that Article 9 can indeed serve as a basis for fostering mutual understanding, addressing the root causes of the current tensions and developing confidence-building measures towards the establishment of mechanisms for peace and stability in East Asia.

Akira Kawasaki is Executive Committee member of Tokyo-based NGO Peace Boat and an initiator of the Global Article 9 Campaign. He currently acts as Chair of the Studies Group on Right to Collective Self-Defense. An expert in nuclear disarmament, he served as an NGO advisor to the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) in 2009-2010. Céline Nahory is International Coordinator for Peace Boat and the Global Article 9 Campaign. She has worked for ten years with NGOs in the U.S., Japan and India, carrying out research and running advocacy campaigns on issues of peace, security, disarmament, economic justice and sustainable development.